Every artist amongst the 13 bands poured his or her love into whisking Off Broadway's rapt, full-house through Guthrie's life, highlighting little-known eras and honoring the more well known.
The night twanged with tribute big and small. Noting a white card stuck to Campfire Club's acoustic that declared, "This machine kills fascists," I smiled as "Ease My Revolutionary Mind" took hold of the crowd. Suddenly, a Dust Bowl Oklahoma felt tangible.
All around me artists anticipated their turn to pay tribute to Guthrie through song. Letters to Memphis dabbled ukelele on "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy" and added a helping of saxophone to "Hobo's Lullaby." With bluegrass panache, Greg Silsby and Dustin Greer blew through "Pretty Boy Floyd" to make new again Guthrie's politics, hard life and penchant for storytelling. "The Ranger's Command" told of outlaws and warriors with classic Guthrie protest. The Union Electric (featuring 88.1 KDHX DJ Tim Rakel) brought distorted pedal steel on "Buffalo Skinners" while Langen Neubacher and the Defeated County pinged glockenspiel over "Blood of the Lamb."
It was all ingeniously inventive yet true to the spirit of Guthrie, creativity inspired by the work of just one man, so many artists responding in vastly different, beautiful ways.
The Warbuckles harnessed an upright bass and a mandolin for "Bury Me Beneath the Willow," then shaded gothic with "Philadelphia Lawyer," and again, not only was I struck by the original's range, but also by the band covering the song, making it their own, laying fingerprints atop fingerprints. We were reaching out to the Dust Bowl troubadour, placing our hands against death's ethereal glass and feeling Guthrie's warmth on the other side.
As the songs and artists rolled by, so too did Guthrie's life as if it were on a reel. With "Bed on Your Floor" Cindy Woolf recalled where Guthrie liked to sleep, followed by "Sowing in the Mountain," as if the songs were written in the same breath. Stickley & Canan used a wooden stomp block and some wild guitar work on "Airline to Heaven" and skewed sad with slide guitar on "1913 Massacre." As proved by their craft, all artists worked to inhabit the emotional space Guthrie must have felt when he originally penned the songs. "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" churned forth to utter joy, and stood as a highlight despite it being a blues. Fedoras came off, beers were raised. Canan tore it up and down on guitar.
Colonel Ford must have heard what Springsteen heard in Guthrie, because this five-piece made the Telecasters wail on "Greenback Dollar" and nearly caught fire to an antique-looking, upright bass on "Oklahoma Hills." Guthrie would have smiled at the irony despite his crippling, late-in-life campfire incident.
Brothers Lazaroff honored Guthrie with a multi-layered version of "Hard Travelin," which resonated with a splash of funky keys and perfect harmony. The band invited the night's musicians on stage for a version of "California Stars" that would have made Tweedy jealous. Concluding the evening, a venue-wide finale of "This Land is Your Land" brought the musicians and crowd together into one joyous whole. All of us there at Off Broadway might as well have been singing, "These songs are your songs, these songs are my songs."
Big and small, we all owe Woody Guthrie a grander than grand thank you. On Saturday night, with the help of KDHX, Off Broadway and a cast of inventive musicians St. Louis gave the legend an inspired salute -- one that won't be topped for at least a hundred years.